In the European spring of 2015 I was on tour in Paris with an Australian dance company. Three nights before our première at the Théâtre National de Chaillot, we were invited to a cocktail reception at the ninth-floor penthouse atop the Australian Embassy, residence of our ambassador to France. His name was Stephen Brady. He had a photograph of Tony Abbott on his wall, but he was gay, and early in his assignment that had been an issue for him—his partner Peter had had to stay in the car when they’d greeted then prime minister Abbott at the airport.
We arrived together, crossing the bridge on foot from our serviced apartments—dancers, actors and technicians. The lift opened onto a large salon enclosed in tinted glass. Embassy staff milled under a canopied ceiling, on carpet so thick as to silence footfalls. Waiters paced with canapés and a bar poured Australian wines. On the terrace a cool spring wind was blowing, and we sipped wine and smoked and chatted.
From the address on the invitation I knew that we were going to a fancy part of Paris, but I didn’t expect the Australian Embassy itself to be so striking. Designed by Harry Seidler, the embassy is composed of two quadrant-shaped buildings that together form an ‘S’. Seen from above, or on a map, the footprint works seamlessly with the axes of the city. At street level the buildings’ precast concrete shells give them a brutalist allure. By night they’re lit for the clair-obscur created by the fenestration pattern on their granite and quartz faces. The interior is striking too. But the embassy, like many buildings in Paris, is even more splendid to look from than to look at.
From the ambassador’s penthouse the view is so astonishing as to seem unreal. The Eiffel Tower looms shockingly close—only a low-lying synthetic sports ground comes between it and the terrace. At this proximity the bolts and bars of the iron frame, and the network of shadows cast by the lattice, are colossal and vivid. On either side of it lie the palisades of the Seine, displaying the gardens of the Champ de Mars, the curving river and three of its bridges: Bir-Hakeim, Iéna and Alma. In the still-bright evening we could see more monuments than we could name.
In 1978 when the embassy celebrated its opening with a 1000-guest party, journalists proudly informed the Australian public of the building’s splendour. In the Sydney Morning Herald Geoffrey Barker wrote, ‘the verve of Mr. Harry Seidler has given Australia an extraordinarily visible and forceful architectural presence in Paris’ (see References). Anne Matheson in Women’s Weekly cited the approval of a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects: ‘a gem in the most perfect setting in Paris’. She also cited a nameless, but local, party guest: ‘“What taste!” said one Frenchman.’ The pride revealed in these quotations has its source in the site as well as in the architecture. It’s not just a tasteful building, it’s a tasteful Australian building in Paris, taste capital of the world.
From the terrace we were quick to notice that we could see the Palais de Chaillot across the river. Inside, three theatres were being rigged for three upcoming premières—besides the show I was doing with Chunky Move, new works by Stephanie Lake and Australian Dance Theatre were being presented. Ostensibly, this party was a launch for this concurrent programming of Australian dance that Chaillot was marketing as Focus Australie.
However, the timing was a little suspicious. Two weeks before this party, it had been announced that $104 million would be siphoned from the Australia Council’s discretionary funding pool in order to establish a ‘National Programme for Excellence in the Arts’, or NPEA, under the direct control of the then newly appointed minister for the arts George Brandis. The reaction to this news from the arts community was swift and incensed. The community feared, justifiably, that smaller and mid-sized companies would risk losing their funding and would potentially have to stop operating altogether, while bigger and many permanently subsidised companies such as Sydney Theatre Company and Opera Australia would be able to apply for extra money. Crudely put, the NPEA was an ideological extension of the Abbott government’s program to promote inequality wherever possible.
It started to become clear that this party was a piece of theatrical propaganda. The trouble had been taken to fly the then foreign minister, Julie Bishop, to Paris. She arrived at the party with a pack of photographers and did a loop around the room shaking hands. We were shushed, and she spoke. In her speech the words ‘art’, ‘culture’ and ‘excellence’ were repeated several times in various combinations. Art was culture; culture was excellence, therefore art was excellence. It was excellent that we were in Paris to do art, and besides being excellent it was cultural. She finished by announcing that the fact that the three companies present were in the business of making contemporary dance said a great deal about Australian progressiveness. This remark—her surprise that Australian dance had not remained in the nineteenth century—was such a non sequitur that no-one even mentioned it afterwards.
The hypocrisy of throwing a party for a bunch of artists and technicians while eroding the funding bodies upon which the companies that employ them depend was cynical. The purely opportunistic character of this party was confirmed by the fact that no official there planned to attend any of the three companies’ performances. Ambassador Brady didn’t even know the name of the company I was performing with; giggling when he told me he thought it was called Chunky Hunky. ‘I kept saying to my staff—when’s Chunky Hunky coming?’ he said. He wanted me to laugh along with him, and it was a little bit funny. But not that funny, because Chunky Move has been a leading Australian dance company for 20 years, and Brady was, at that time, our Ambassador to France.
Most of the performers present—myself included—eke out a living from freelance work with major and minor arts companies, and by that evening we were informed, and concerned, about the reallocation of funds. Someone I ran into on the terrace raised his glass, toasting, ‘Here’s to the funeral for the arts.’ But a more sinister intention of this party was the association that the NPEA policy sought to create between art and a kind of forbidding elitism, illustrated in this case by the luxury real estate, champagne flutes and Paris. What was being communicated was that we were worthy of celebration, right now, because here we were on the threshold of so-called excellence.
Opportunistically using a bunch of artists and arts workers who happened to be on tour to Paris to forge links between a bullshit definition of excellence and the high-society image conveyed by this embassy cocktail party is one small way the Abbott government systematically sought to reinforce the notion that art is a pleasurable pastime for the rich.
Making art seem as though it is the purview of the rich ensures that a large section of the population feels that art is not for them. This encourages the sentiment that the arts do not deserve ‘taxpayer’ subsidies and should instead be released to the whims of the free market. In general, making arts companies more vulnerable to market vagaries has the double effect of making them more expensive and more conservative in terms of the content they present, because they need to sell more tickets to cover running costs. For most people in Australia, art forms such as ballet and theatre are forbiddingly expensive to attend. At the time of writing an adult ticket to The Children at Sydney Theatre Company is $103. A student or pensioner gets in for $82. A single pensioner on maximum supplements will be given $907.60 fortnightly. So 18 per cent of their weekly pension would be gone on one theatre ticket. And if they would rather see The Merry Widow at the Australian Ballet? A pensioner’s ticket is $214. The cheapest one available, for under 30s, is $189.
That the performing arts are so expensive fuels the sentiment that art in general is not for certain people. This is useful for ensuring that the threat posed by a critically thinking underclass is hosed down before it even begins. What Michael Mohammed Ahmad writes about literacy, after the American activist bell hooks, goes for all art forms: ‘degrees of literacy define our ability to be critical of social systems … and to create alternatives to these systems, particularly through critical consciousness, critical discussion and artistic self-representation’. Literacy and art engender lenses with which to see and think the world anew. Of course the ruling class don’t want people to access what may give them the tools to formulate an articulate challenge to the status quo.
Worst of all is the fact that the division of society into those who participate in the arts and those who do not is proliferated by everyday social attitudes. For all the people I have heard complain that the arts are funded at all, I have heard just as many say things that are filled with prejudice about who consumes—or should consume—certain art forms. A friend of mine dismissed his girlfriend’s parents as being ‘from Campbelltown’ to explain why he was giving me tickets to his play instead of them. A woman I know described the audience at a free jazz festival event as ‘a bunch of bogans’, suggesting that this was the result of being ‘populist’ and not charging for entry. I sat next to someone at an aria competition who mocked the rural accent of the person who won, implying that she was in the wrong place.
Even ABC News online, relaying recent findings by the ‘Australian Cultural Fields Project’, frames the information in such a way as to reinforce such biases with sociological ‘proof’. Yes, the article says, it’s true—there is such a thing as ‘working class taste’. People who perform routine, manual jobs spend hours watching The Block while we watch Grand Designs, read romance novels, listen to country music and are crazy for Eddie McGuire. These people, who own no books and visit no galleries, would not even understand what they are seeing if they did, because they have never heard of Jackson Pollock or even of Tim Winton for that matter. Basing their views on reports like this, many people who would never be explicitly racist or homophobic freely generalise about people in lower socioeconomic positions. Snobbery’s not new, of course. But government policies that validate these prejudices by authorising false associations between art and the moneyed classes are divisive and dangerous.
What has remained with me since this party, however, is neither the propaganda and false associations, nor the details about arts funding. (Following rigorous lobbying by the arts sector, the NPEA was renamed ‘Catalyst’, then abandoned.) The siphoned funds have been largely restored to the Australia Council (although Jo Caust points out that $15 million remains unaccounted for). What remains from that evening is something that Ambassador Brady told me.
Brady is an affable man. He cheerily answered my questions about his art collection—on display were works by Rover Thomas, Jeffrey Smart and a commissioned sculpture by contemporary Wiradjuri artist Brook Andrew—and then gave me a tour of his private rooms. Upon returning to the salon, though, he lowered his voice. He raised what he called ‘the question on every-body’s lips’. How did Australia come to have such a magnificent embassy in Paris? I don’t know that this really was the question on everybody’s lips. But it was obviously on his mind, and he wanted to pass on the truth.
The land that the embassy is built on was one of the last remaining blocks of state-owned land in central Paris when it was put to auction by the government of Georges Pompidou. The site, which totals six thousand square metres and is situated on the Seine’s left bank, adjacent to the Eiffel Tower—did not sell. No French company made a bid on the block. Brady’s words were, ‘No-one wanted to touch it.’ Why? It was an old train yard, originally part of the station built to service the International Exposition of 1900. But during the Second World War trains on this site were used to transport 13 000 Jews who had been rounded up and detained in a covered cycling stadium, the Vel’ d’Hiv, just across the Boulevard Grenelle from the embassy. Men, women and children were held in the velodrome for up to a week in the July heat before having their heads shaved and being loaded onto trains for Auschwitz. ‘The Winter Velodrome Round Up’ is one of the most murderous incidents in the history of French–Nazi collaboration. By 1945 only 780 of the 13 000 people rounded up were still alive.
The tainted history of this land is why Australia, in the final days of the McMahon government, was able to purchase it for only $7 million. A real bargain, or ‘a gilt-edged investment’, as the Women’s Weekly put it. When the Pompidou government finally opened the plot to bids from foreign governments, the only other country to bid for it was Germany. Brady’s eyes swivelled around my face with this detail. In characteristic good taste, the French sold it to Australia.
I don’t know why Ambassador Brady told me that story. It was interesting to witness his divulgence about the uneasy foundations of the embassy he was residing in and representing. It was a confession. And underneath the confession lay a sentiment of fraudulence, of inadequacy. How did Australia end up with such a magnificent embassy in Paris? It was his question, not mine. Perhaps the incident in which he was forced to hide his partner in the car so that Tony Abbott wouldn’t have to acknowledge a gay partnership made him specially sensitive to other things we keep hidden as a nation. Maybe, as a representative of Australia, he was trying to clear Australia’s conscience.
Australia has never properly addressed the lie of terra nullius upon which our foundation stands, nor the genocidal principle that drove the occupation of this land.
Our national constitution is built on the assertion that a certain subset of people don’t—or shouldn’t—exist. We have not accepted responsibility for the originary crimes of our nation, maybe so that we don’t have to acknowledge the inequalities persisting because of them. It seems easier to disguise the scars of another nation’s holocaust with beautiful architecture than it does to examine our own. But when you don’t stand on firm ground you don’t know where you’re speaking from.
And that begets our uneasy relationship with art. The idea that we should value our own stories, and our own storytellers, and that this should be a unifying, not divisive, practice—something for all—doesn’t sit well with us as a nation. As Alison Croggon writes:
I have sometimes wondered if this suspicion of art has something to do with Australia being the only country in the world that was founded as a penal bureaucracy. I suspect it is linked to our brutal ignorance of Indigenous culture, a refusal which itself emerges from an anxiety about our occupation of this country that we are unable, as a nation, to acknowledge.
It seems that the repression of our violent origins manifests as anxiety concerning that which could allow for a revelation of truth. We would rather devalue art, or segregate and supervise it by falsely associating it with leisure and luxury, than risk allowing what has been buried to rise to the surface. But only so many pretty embassies can be built on massacre sites before it starts to come at the expense of national self-respect. •
Eloïse Mignon has worked as an actress in Australia and France. She is studying for a PhD at the University of Melbourne.
Michael Mohammed Ahmad, ‘Bad Writer’, Best Australian Essays 2017.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation, <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-04-13/what-your-habits-reveal-about-your-social-class/9610658>.
Geoffrey Barker, ‘Australia flies a lavish flag in Paris’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 1978, <http://smharchives.smedia.com.au/Olive/APA/smharchive/Default.aspx#panel=document>.
Jo Caust, ‘After the Catalyst arts funding mess, many questions remain’, the Conversation, 21 March 2017, <https://theconversation.com/after-the-catalyst-arts-funding-mess-many-questions-remain-74848>.
Alison Croggon, ‘On the Intellectual Life of a Nation’, Overland 219 (Winter 2015), <https://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-219/regular-alison-croggon/>.
Anne Matheson, ‘The New Australian Embassy: A Gilt-Edged Investment in Paris’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 11 May 1977, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/aww/read/224771?q=australian+embassy+paris&s=0&resultId=num0#page/4/mode/1up>.
Anne Matheson, ‘Brilliant Opening for Our Paris Embassy’, Australian Women’s Weekly, 1 March 1978, <https://trove.nla.gov.au/aww/read/222976?q=australian+embassy+paris&s=0&resultId=num1#page/16/mode/1up>.
Inga Ting, Ri Lui, Nathanael Scoot and Alex Palmer, ‘What your habits reveal about your social class’, ABC News online, 13 April 2018.